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How Did Lions Become a Symbol of Buddhism?

Forbidden City imperial guardian lions. (Image:  Allentchang via  flickr  CC BY-SA 3.0)
Forbidden City imperial guardian lions. (Image: Allentchang via flickr CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lions are known as the king of the animal kingdom, and are a sign of strength. They are native to Africa and West Asia, and don’t come from China; so when and how were they introduced to China?

During the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu sent Zhang Qian to serve as an ambassador in the Western Regions, also known as Xiyu. Lions were brought back to China during that period, as noted in the Book of the Later Han:

A guardian lion outside Yonghe Temple, Beijing. (Image: McKay Savage via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

A guardian lion outside Yonghe Temple, Beijing. (Image: McKay Savage via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

As Buddhism spread eastward to China, the lion gradually began to replace the tiger’s original position as king of the animal kingdom. Dogen, a monk during the Song Dynasty, wrote:

Later, Sakyamuni Buddha’s dharma was referred to as a lion’s roar, implying that his voice was so great and dignified that it could prevent all heresy. Meanwhile, the lion began to play a more important role in Buddhism.

Why are there always a pair of stone lions placed in front of ancient architecture?

With their noble and dignified character making an impression on people, lions became the subject of decorative carving arts in China. Thereafter, stone lions were seen at the imperial tombs during the Han and Tang dynasties, and also in wealthy aristocratic graveyards, inspiring a sense of awe in people visiting the graves.

A Ming Dynasty guardian lion in the Forbidden City. (Image: Leonard, G. via wikimedia / CC BY-SA 1.0)

A Ming Dynasty guardian lion in the Forbidden City. (Image: Leonard, G. via wikimedia / CC BY-SA 1.0)

After the Tang and Song dynasties, stone lions were also widely used by people for guarding their homes against evil spirits and ghosts, while at the same time inviting fortune and good luck into their lives.

The ancients believed that everything is either yin or yang, and that these need to be well harmonized. Therefore, a pair of stone lions were usually placed by the female on the male’s right side, based on the yin-yang theory.

The ancients always considered stone lions as a symbol of good luck. In addition to being used for protection against evil spirits, stone lions were also often used as decoration in traditional Chinese architecture.

Translated by Joseph Wu and Monica Song.

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